BMMHS Evening Meeting: The Battle of the River Plate

The Battle of the River Plate

Speaker: Peter Hore

meeting December 2022

Wednesday 14th December 2022; 7:30pm

BMMHS Meeting Venue

Woodcote Village Hall, Reading Road, Woodcote, RG8 0QY

 In view of COVID the meetings may switch to a Zoom talk at short notice. Please check the home page for the latest information.

Henry Harwood and the Battle of the River Plate, 13- 17 December 1939

Henry Harwood: Hero of the Battle of the River Plate.  

Peter Hore describes the events, and the man behind them, which led up to the battle which took place 13 to 17 December 1939 off Montevideo – 83 years ago tonight – , between a German pocket battleship and three, weaker British cruisers.  

The British ships were however skilfully led by Commodore Henry Harwood who outmanoeuvred the German and forced him to scuttle in shallow water.  

Churchill described the battle as  “a flash of light and colour …  a great action which will long be told in song and story” and “which warmed the cockles of the Nation’s heart”

River Plate Hore
ROYAL NAVY WARSHIPS OF THE INTER-WAR PERIOD (Q 65698) The cruiser HMS EXETER. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
River Plate Hore
THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6) The German pocket battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE in flames after being scuttled off Montevideo, Uruguay, after the Battle of the River Plate, 17 December 1939. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Victory in the Battle of the River Plate, the first major naval engagement of the Second World War, was a great boost to British morale during the ‘Phoney War’.
When war broke out in September 1939, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, commanded by Hans Langsdorff, was patrolling in the Atlantic. She represented a grave threat to Allied shipping, sinking eight merchant ships between September and December.
Seven Allied ‘hunting groups’, totalling 23 major warships, were sent to look for her. After sinking three more ships, Langsdorff made for the busy shipping lanes off the River Plate in South America. Commodore Henry Harwood of Hunting Group G correctly guessed Langsdorff’s intentions, and on 13 December he closed in with the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.
Langsdorff concentrated his fire on the heavier Exeter, setting her alight, destroying most of her guns and forcing her to leave for the Falkland Islands. Shifting fire to Ajax, Langsdorff disabled two of her four turrets before breaking away for the port of Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay. Harwood kept watch outside while other Allied ships rushed to the area.
According to international law, a warship could only remain in a neutral port for 24 hours, and British diplomats tried to have Graf Spee interned or forced to leave. Langsdorff extended his stay by 72 hours but finally had to leave on 17 December.
Only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had arrived to reinforce Harwood, but Langsdorff, convinced that strong forces were waiting, sank Graf Spee himself rather than risk another battle. © IWM
River Plate Hore
THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 2) The German battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate Estuary off Montevideo, Uruguay. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
River Plate Hore
THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 24416) The cruiser ACHILLES, veteran of the Battle of the River Plate, moored at Greenock shortly after her refit. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
River Plate Hore
THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 8) Rear Admiral Sir Henry Harwood is greeted by the British Minister to Uruguay, Mr E Millington-Drake after his arrival at Montevideo. Admiral Harwood arrived in the cruiser HMS AJAX after the battle of the River Plate and the scuttling of the ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
River Plate Hore
HMS EXETER'S ARRIVAL AT PLYMOUTH: 1940 (HU 104428) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

About the speaker - Peter Hore

Captain Peter Hore, Royal Navy

Peter Hore served worldwide as a ‘pusser’ during a full career in the Royal Navy, including exchange service in 1964 in the US Navy, and two tours of duty in NATO’s Standing Naval Force Atlantic 1972 & 1973.  During the Falklands War he was joint logistics commander on Ascension Island, in 1987-90 he was Base Supply Officer, Hong Kong.   Subsequently he was military assistant to DCDS(Systems), he helped to direct the Royal Navy’s applied research programme, 1992-94 and was Head of Defence Studies, 1997-2000.

He qualified as an interpreter in Spanish and Swedish, and as a Cantonese linguist.

Since 2000 he has spent nine years in the film and TV industry, and is now a fulltime author, editor and journalist. 

A freelance obituarist at the London Daily Telegraph since 2002, he has written some 1,500 obituaries on the men and women of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Merchant Navy also the SBS, the FANY, the French Resistance, yachtsmen, shipping magnates, etc.

Peter writes reviews and articles for several newspapers and journals including the influential Warships International Fleet Review where he is associate editor.  He has written or edited a dozen books on naval history, biography and strategy, which can be found at Amazon’s Peter Hore page , including HMS Pickle , the biography of a ship, and Nelson’s Band of Brothers , a ‘who’s who’ of the officers who served under Nelson at the admiral’s three great battles, and he has just completed five years as editor of the annual Trafalgar Chronicle which is the prime source of information and the publication of choice for new research about the Georgian navy.

For more information on Peter’s latest books, Henry Harwood, Hero of the River Plate, published in July 2018, see and Bletchley Park’s Secret Source: Churchill’s Wrens and the Wireless War see

He is an elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society, of the Society for Nautical Research, and of the Royal Swedish Society for Nautical Sciences, as well as a Chartered Member of the Institute of Linguists.

He celebrated his 70th birthday by walking from St Jean pied du Port in France to Muxía in Galicia. 

River Plate Peter Hore
Peter Hore

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